Pierre Gauthier is not an exciting man. He's not got the bull-moose aggressiveness of a Brian Burke or the sleek Hall-of-Fame pedigree of a Steve Yzerman, either of whom could capture the imagination of the fans. He's an unremarkable businessman who got his job with an unremarkable record, probably because his friends were in a position to hire him, and he fulfilled the requirements of lineage and language with a team for which those things are important.
For a lot of fans, Gauthier is a placeholder. He's there until Geoff Molson turns the ship in another direction and cleans house in favour of a more exciting team of managers. He's done little remarkable in his brief tenure as Habs GM, with the exception of trading Jaroslav Halak. That was either a ballsy or completely loony move, depending on how well Halak plays for St.Louis over the next four years.
For others, Gauthier is a quiet captain, holding the good ship Canadiens on the steady course to respectability set by Bob Gainey. He's making the best of a tight cap situation and trying to gradually improve an already-decent team.
Whatever your view of Gauthier, there's one thing he's doing well. He's doing what any good salesman does: marketing a coveted commodity to his customers. Hockey fans, like the consumers of any product, want to believe that the new thing on the market; the thing they don't already have, is the best thing available. For hockey fans, the thing they crave is possibility.
Possibility, as it applies to hockey players, is in the form of young talent. The draft pick is always more valuable than the prospect because it's got more possibility. A GM can always imagine a first-rounder as the next Sidney Crosby, or a second-round sleeper as the next P.K. Subban. Once that pick becomes a definable prospect with strengths and weaknesses, it drops in value because its possibilities are then limited. Similarly, a new prospect is always better than one that's been in a team's system and hasn't developed as quickly as hoped, because the new guy has more possibility. One can always imagine that his talent is unlimited, but factors like the other team's sub-standard development system, or maybe an injury or an unsympathetic coach, has hindered the expression of that talent. When that guy, who was once so highly-touted, is with our team, we think, his potential is once again incalculable.
That's what Gauthier is doing so successfully right now. A look at the Habs' prospect cupboard last year revealed little in the way of real promise. Subban was just starting his first year of pro hockey and we had no idea how well he'd adapt. Pacioretty was pencilled in to start with the big team, but with no guarantees he'd find any kind of offensive ability. Maxwell, White, Desharnais and Trotter were still considered years away from making the Habs, if they ever did. On defence, Weber and Carle came into camp with high hopes, but neither of them stood out enough to threaten for a spot in Montreal. What had once been touted as one of the league's top prospect systems suddenly looked pretty bleak.
It got worse when the NHL season started. Sergei Kostitsyn, seemingly filled with talent, became a problem child. Pacioretty couldn't cut it at the NHL level. Maxwell was invisible. Desharnais, Trotter and White had one great game together, then got their ice time cut in their second game in Montreal, leading to their demotion. The film of possibility was stripped from the kids and fans began to wonder where the next generation of talent would come from.
Gauthier started badly, trading a second-round pick for veteran Dominic Moore. The price for a lower-tier rental player seemed much too high for people who thirst for possibility. It turned out Moore was a strong asset during the latter part of the season and into the playoffs, and the criticism of the trade died down. Then Gauthier really got to work. He traded Sergei Kostitsyn for Dustin Boyd. Then he traded Jaroslav Halak for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. At the draft, he traded up to get Jarred Tinordi. And shortly afterwards, he convinced Alexander Avtsin to sign with the Habs.
Suddenly, the garden of possibility the fans had believed had become an arid desert began to bloom once again. The loss of Halak stings, but the return of two strong prospects starts the hum of potential thrumming in the veins of die-hards, lessening the hurt of the trade. Nobody thought Sergei Kostitsyn would bring much at all, so the idea of getting Dustin Boyd, who'd been such a bright hope on Canada's world junior team and so highly rated by the Flames, for him, was a thrill for Habs fans. A lot of people thought trading up in this year's draft and losing another second-round pick in the process just to get Tinordi was foolish. Now, looking at the great predictions of Tinordi's promise and reading how many other teams would have liked him, it seems a good idea.
Gauthier may be unremarkable and he may make mistakes, but one thing he's done right is revamping the Habs prospect list. Eller, Schultz, Boyd, Tinordi, Kristo, Leblanc, Subban, Avtsin, Pacioretty, Weber, Carle, Maxwell, Desharnais and Trotter looks a heck of a lot better list than the one we saw going into camp last season. So, Gauthier is bringing in potential and possibility, and that's what fans really want.
Whether any of that possibility and potential becomes NHL skill and talent is another story. But a GM can buy a lot of leeway by providing hope to his fanbase. That's what Gauthier has done. When he eventually goes off on his unremarkable way, we may be thanking him for that. Or we may feel we've been duped, once again. Luckily for an unremarkable man, time and possibility are on his side.